Well the regular MLS season is winding down and while RSL sits near the top of the Western Conference and overall MLS table, questions still remain for me. When will the real RSL show up and stay? For the 15th time in 28 matches RSL gave up the first goal to their opponent on Wednesday night, and for the 9th time they managed to grab at least a point after giving up that first goal. That number speaks to the fact this club never stops fighting, but it also speaks to the fact that we give up the first goal way too often. Is it tactics? Motivation? Mental lapses? Questionable defense? Or a combination of some or all of those? I am not sure but it sure drives me nuts (and I expect others as well), as does the 40 goals allowed, only two teams in the West have given up more goals this season, and thankfully we play one of them next.
The Portland Timbers, the defending MLS Cup champions, have seemed to be a team on a season long celebration hangover. They are clinging onto the final playoff spot in the West with a 9-11-8 record and 35 points from 28 matches. The Timbers have just 3 wins since the 4th of July and a 3-5-3 record during that time period. Those 3 wins all came at home and all in what would appear to be convincing manner, 3-1 over Seattle, 3-0 over SKC and 4-2 over Seattle again.
RSL visited Portland in third week of the season and it ended up being a contentious 2-2 draw that saw RSL get a 1-0 lead early, go down to 10 men in the 31st minute, go up 2-0, give up a goal, go down another man and then give up another goal to end up with a 2-2 draw. The sides faced off a second time in June at Rio Tinto and again RSL got off to an early 1-0 lead, then gave up 2 first half goals but managed to come from behind to secure another 2-2 draw vs the Timbers.
So the rubber match will take place in Portland on Saturday, it is huge for both teams as RSL look to keep pace at the top of the Western Conference playoff race while the Timbers look to keep the 3 team close behind them for the final playoff spot beneath them.
It seems like just yesterday that the RSL season was kicking off and fans were unsure of what to expect after the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and with just 10 matches left in the season I expect many fans are still finding themselves wondering what to expect.
RSL sits currently in 3rd place in the Western Conference with a 10-7-7 record and 37 points or 1.54 points per match (a good improvement over the 1.21 ppm from last year). A 1.54 ppm would have put RSL in 4th place in the West last year, shield winners New York Red Bulls ended the season with a 1.76 and won a tie breaker with FC Dallas to claim the shield. Currently MLS is lead by the Colorado Rapids with a 1.86 points per match, RSL’s 1.54 is tied for 5th in MLS at this point.
This weekend RSL will travel to Seattle to take on the Sounders who’s fans are probably feeling like RSL’s fans did last year, when things looked real bleak by August. The Sounders are 7-12-3 with a 1.24 ppm and 8 points out of the last playoff spot in the West, but things in MLS can change quickly. Both teams are coming off wins (RSL 3-1 over CHI & SEA 3-1 over ORL) and both have two wins in their last 5 matches. Both teams needing wins to close the gap with teams they are chasing, for RSL it is LA, Colorado and FC Dallas the 3 teams in front of them in the West and their next 3 opponents (all at home). For Seattle it is Vancouver, San Jose and Portland the 3 teams between them and a playoff sport, 4 of their next 5 matches are against those teams. Both teams are 8 points behind that key team (FCD in 1st & PDX in the final playoff spot), so it would be easy to label it a must win for both, but Seattle is clearly the more desperate team.
Draws at home aren’t good enough, never have been and never will be in MLS this year the home teams are 98-32-59, in the West 4 teams haven’t lost at home, 2 more have lost just once. RSL’s has had draws in 3 of their last 4 home matches after winning their first 5 home matches, so while we can take pride in not having lost at home, we need to get back on that winning side of things and on Saturday facing the New England Revolution who are 1-5-3 on the road and who have never won at Rio Tinto, there should be no better time to get a home win.
It may not be fresh on the minds of RSL players or fans, but last year at New England we did one of those mixed lineups and got thrashed 4-0. Of course RSL has had a few of those big wins over New England as well, a 6-0 and 5-0 wins in their matches at Rio Tinto back in 2009 & 10. This is actually a series that RSL holds a distinct advantage in with 9 wins, 5 losses and 4 draws and only twice in those 18 matches have we had a 0-0 draw and none since 2007. In fact 11 times RSL has scored 2 or more goals against the Revs, and have 34 overall goals against them. Being shut out last year was the first time since 2007 that RSL hadn’t scored against New England. Toss in the fact that the Revs will be without Charlie Davies, Juan Agudelo and others and it’s starting to sound like this one should be a cakewalk right?
The Revs could be getting back Gershon Koffie, who has been out for over a month, they also recently added Kei Kamara who has 3 goals since joining New England from Columbus. Add in Lee Nguyen and Digeo Fagundez, and the results can change, the Revs won just 2 of their first 13 matches but have won 3 of their last 6 so this is clearly a team that is putting things together. So can RSL follow the example of LA and FC Dallas, both who beat the Revs 4-2? I expect a full strength lineup from RSL (some questions about Joao Plata and Demar Phillips who have minor injuries they are nursing). Still with LA winning last night, and both Sporting KC & Vancouver able to leap in front of RSL in the standing with wins this weekend, 3 points is critical for the Claret and Coblat.
RSL scored at least a goal in their first 8 matches, actually RSL scored 2 goals in 6 of their first 8 matches. However in the last 3 RSL has been unable to find the back of the net, so heading into a big match at Sporting KC, they will look to heat things up, scoring, winning, and hopefully not fouls and cards.
For the last 5 years the budding rivalry has been one of the best on the pitch rivalries in MLS, what got heated up in the preseason of 2011 hit a peak on a chilly December day in 2013 as the teams fought for the MLS Cup in a match filled with controversy and eventual heartbreak for RSL in PKs. How tight is the rivalry, since that preseason match RSL and KC have each won 4 matches and there have been just 2 draws. The edge goes to RSL in recent history, as SKC hasn’t beaten RSL since that December MLS Cup match, RSL has actually won the last 3 matches 2-1, including their first trip to Children’s Mercy Park earlier this year.
Both sides are a close to fit as one could expect this time of year, RSL probably has the most question marks in their starting lineup, but there will be no excuses on Saturday. Both sides will lose players after this match as Copa Americana gets started in a couple weeks, for the USMNT 3 players will highlight in the match. RSL’s Kyle Beckerman will join SKC’s Graham Zusi and Matt Besler as part of the 23 man US roster.
Both of these teams are on 17 points, both sides have given up 14 goals and neither side has a positive goal differential. Of course RSL has played 3 fewer matches, which could be seen as both a positive and negative as far as these number go. So who will come out on top on Saturday? and why?
It was a crazy week for me, so I wasn’t able to get a match preview done before the scheduled 6:30pm kickoff on Saturday for the RSL at Houston Dynamo match, but crazy also can describe the weather in Houston and due to severe weather in the area the match was delayed until Sunday morning/afternoon with a 12:00 kickoff.
So that means I have enough time to put together a quick match preview for you. RSL went into Colorado last weekend with a chance to secure the 2016 version of the Rocky Mountain Cup, but the Rapids aren’t a pushover anymore. Despite doing most things right, RSL looked a bit off all night, it may have been the awful weather, a early second half play by the Rapids found a wide open Jermaine Jones in the area and he put the ball in the back of the net for the only goal of the night.
So now RSL needs to put that behind them and take advantage of the struggling Dynamo, who have a 2-6-2 record so far this year and are just 2-1-2 at home. They Dynamo are also coming off a busy week that saw them on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline in San Jose on Wednesday, so while an extra few hours of rest may help them RSL should still be the much fresher team.
I really haven’t considered the Colorado Rapids much of a rival over the last few years as they have struggled to be competitive in both the league and Rocky Mountain Cup. Last year the Rapids won the RMC for the first time in 6 years, but still finished as the bottom team in the Western Conference. So on Saturday, RSL will start their first of 5 straight on the road at Colorado, where a win would move them to the top of MLS as well securing the 2016 version of the RMC.
If you had picked RSL and Colorado to be at the top of the Western Conference after 8 matches, well you probably also had Leicester City picked to win the EPL back in August of last year. OK maybe it isn’t that big of a longshot, but clearly both sides have found their form quickly in 2016, so this match should be an exciting one. The RSL offense is one of the top in MLS with 14 goals scored, while the Rapids have one of the best defenses with just 8 goals allowed in their first 9 matches. RSL holds the all time lead between the two sides with a 14-11-10 record, and RSL has 4 wins and 5 draws vs the Rapids on the road including a 1-0 win in 2014.
Early on in the season it was Marco Pappa pulling the strings for the Rapids but he has been out a couple weeks with an injury, but several others have stepped up. First of them is Jermaine Jones who has served his suspension and in his 3 matches back he has 2 goals and 2 assists. There is also their new DP Shkelzen Gashi, who also has 2 goals and 2 assists this season. It is started to become clear last year with the signing of Kevin Doyle, that the Rapids were starting to take things a bit more seriously. The question is will their fans notice or care? Attendance is still barely averaging 14,000 and if you have seen there games you know that is being very generous.
So what will RSL need to do in order to get a result in Colorado?
Did we all think after coming in mid year that this year we would see more from Juan Manual “Burrito” Martinez, sure. Did we all hope that Joao Plata would return to his 2013 form after injuries last year, sure. Did we all think bringing back Yura Movsisyan would help the RSL offense, sure. Did we all think that younger guys like Jordan Allen and Justen Glad had a ton of potential to make RSL better, sure. Did any of us think Sunny would step in and make this much of a difference right away, nope. Did all of us think we had serious issues at CB heading into this season, yup. Do most of us still think we have those issues at CB, probably
The first 8 matches of RSL season have come as a surprise to just about everyone, but I doubt many people are disappointed given the team has the best PPM 2.13 in the league and our 5-1-2 record is mighty good given some of the early season injuries, suspensions and mistakes. I think a lot of us noticed something different about the team early on, the amount of fight when faced with things going wrong seemed much better than last year.
While all of us are impressed with where RSL is after the first 8 matches, things could have been better a couple of bad red cards in two of the first 3 matches, along with a couple of mental and physical breakdowns late in matches left RSL exposed late and the team ended up with a couple of draws in matches that could have and probably should have been wins. Imagine what people would be saying about a 7-1-0 start by RSL. Still you have to deal with the hands you are given sometimes and I believe the team learned a lot about itself in those tough situations, something that will pay off over the long MLS season.
On Saturday night in their 2-1 win over Houston we saw RSL do something rare in MLS, get a win after giving up the first goal. For RSL it is actually the second time this season they have done it, they also did it again Seattle in our 2-1 win over them. The only team that has shown the ability to come from behind better than RSL has been the LA Galaxy who have won 3 and gotten 2 draws after giving up the first goal.
With the turf coming up at Rio Tinto after Saturday’s match RSL will look to rebound from their loss at LA with a win over Houston. The biggest question is what Houston team will they face, the team that scored 11 goals in their first 3 matches, or the one who has scored just 2 in their last 4? The one thing in common that both RSL and Houston have is that they both were recently spanked by the Galaxy (the best team in MLS the last few weeks).
So RSL will need to find a way to quickly put last weekend out of their minds and focus on getting the full 3 points against Houston before they head out on the road. They will do so without Plata, could be without Burrito, and have a Javi and Sunny that are still working their way back to full fitness, and facing a team that has looked to play more conservatively than they did at the start of the season. After being thrashed at home by the Galaxy, they went on the road at Columbus and played a much more defensive style and while they still ended up on the losing end of the match, they did play much better. I expect against a RSL team that has scored goals in every match, that once again on the road Houston will be looking to play defensively and hope to counter or take advantage of any RSL mistakes. While they picked up a red card early in the match against Columbus, it was back up keeper Tyler Deric who saw red and was replaced by their regular starter (so far this season) Joe Willis.
So one area of focus all year in MLS matches has been the officials, and it has been for good reason as many strange calls have been made or not made so far this year. Nima Saghafi will be the ref in charge of the match, it will be just his MLS match as the main official. In his previous match there was a red card and two PK’s given, the red card looked very legit but the PK’s had a bit more question about them. We will see how this new official handles the match on Saturday.
I get that it might lack the prestige to some of Seattle vs Portland, or New York vs New York, but for my money there simply is no better rivalry in MLS than RSL vs LA. It is as much about how things are done within the organizations as it is the battles on the pitch for me.
You have LA, the team that probably writes most of the MLS roster rules over the year, and given the investment AEG has made in MLS over the years it almost is understandable. The DP rule was created to allow the Galaxy to sign David Beckham, he wasn’t the first player the league discussed changing the rules for but he was the one that made it happen. Their current roster are mega DP’s like Steven Gerrard, Gio dos Santos and the best DP in MLS history Robbie Keane, with that they have European imports Nigel de Jong, Ashley Cole, Jelle Van Damme. They also picked up MLS stars Jeff Larentowicz and Mike Magee, which compliments guys like Robbie Rogers, AJ DeLaGarza, Gyasi Zardes, Jose Villareal, Baggio Husidic and Sebastian Lletget. I am always amazed how they keep this type of roster within the cap, but that is the magic of allocation money.
On the other hand, RSL have brought in players but never break the bank guys, the biggest signings in the club’s history have come in recent months with the arrival of Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez late last year and the return of Yura Movsisyan this year. The core of the team are the guys who were brought in almost a decade ago, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Tony Beltran even returning guys like Chris Wingert and Yura. Then toss in some of the young players, like Glad, Plata, Allen, and guys who have yet to make an impact like Kavita, Holnes, Acosta, Attinella, and others. RSL has pushed the salary cap not with the huge signings but by raising the salaries of their veteran core, which probably takes as much work as the mega DP route that LA takes.
So let me be clear, there were some very pretty moments in the match for RSL and one only has to listen to Brian Dunseth remind us that Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez is “Killing careers one vine at a time” or read what RSL head coach Jeff Cassar had to say after the match
“I wish I knew what he was going to do every time because he does some really special things. He (Martinez) got out of some really tricky situations. All of our attacking players are extremely talented and when they’re playing with each other you can do special things you can do some things that you don’t necessarily think are going to happen because you trust the player that is giving the ball to you. I think that we can still get even better. That is what is exciting.”
to understand there were some simply amazing moments on Saturday night. Still if you watched the match you know how bad the first 20 minutes or so looked as Vancouver came out like it was a playoff match and were pressing high and causing chaos for the RSL defense. Still despite the early mistakes and pressure, RSL didn’t give up a goal in fact RSL created a few good chances on counters early on but were unable to get the early goal. I think the biggest difference between last year and this year (so far) is that in ugly close matches last year we lost leads and often lost matches. So far this year even when we have lost leads, we have managed not to lose those matches, we have recovered or withstood adversity early on this season and as things get better (play, form, fitness, injuries) results should stay very good.